It is no surprise fierce debates endure regarding the Shadow of the Colossus PlayStation 4 remake and how it compares to its PlayStation 2 progenitor: despite the vast graphical upgrades, the 2005 original’s foggier atmosphere and minimal colors don’t just remain the most captivating technological feat on PS2 all these years later, but invoke a mystifying ambience entirely unique to Team ICO. Not to downplay Bluepoint Games’ efforts — by itself, the remake is incredible to look at — but utilizing an entirely new team to convert a game from two generations ago into a modern-day HD showcase will inevitably produce key differences; in this case, lusher detail and a cleaner look. In a game celebrated for its “design by subtraction” presentation, even the slightest change could be an affront to our memories.
Personally, while I have my own qualms with it (Wander’s face is the only real misfire, although I have a host of smaller nitpicks), there’s one addition that’ll probably render it my version of choice: Photo Mode. Shadow of the Colossus is a beautiful game no matter which version you’re playing, and including a customizable camera packed with filters, depth of field ranges, color balancing, rotation and more allows players to craft their ultimate visual experience, right down to leaving some of the filters on as you play. As a game emphasizing awe and scale, there’s practically an unlimited amount of visually interactive potential to be mined. (And hey, given how the game’s camera works, it’s not you’ll be staring at Wander’s face all the time anyway, especially now given Photo Mode’s numerous options)
In a similar article regarding Super Mario Odyssey, we discussed how that game’s Photo Mode plays into its themes of freedom. Shadow of the Colossus’s Photo Mode is certainly more advanced in its options — Super Mario Odyssey does not allow filters on for actual gameplay, for instance — but it’s hardly as bountiful or open a game as Mario’s latest adventure; yes, there’s an ancient land to explore and fruit/lizards to hunt (not to mention Bluepoint’s addition of coins), but progression is fairly linear (despite the world’s openness, you tackle all 16 colossi in the same order) and Wander is hardly as acrobatic as Mario. In that sense, broadly defining Shadow of the Colossus with “freedom” feels a little off, but the remake allows us to break it down into freedom of storytelling.
Let us recap the original game: Shadow of the Colossus is a masterclass in visual storytelling, opening with a mysterious setting (The Forbidden Lands, long ago gated off for unknown purposes), hooking us with the barest of premises (a man must resurrect his lover by slaying 16 colossi), and we’re left to go hunt. There are no NPCs, no towns, and no bad guys impeding your quest — just 16 colossi and an ancient sword guiding us to their lairs. The game is purposely oblique: we don’t know exactly why these colossi must die; fearsome as they may be, the chorus-filled requiems that accompany their deaths instill guilt. There are ruins indicating civilization, but we know not their purpose or history. Dormin, the omnipresent voice that instructs Wander, refers to itself as “we” and speaks in male/female voices. Some of these questions and more are answered, and some are not, but just enough blanks are filled to keep us asking questions; for instance, is Wander a brave soul willing to undertake anything to save his love, or a villain whose selfish desires leads to unforgivable consequences?
Shadow of the Colossus‘s minimalism belies its depths: the more you ask, the deeper it becomes, and so strictly defining it as a boss rush feels wrong. Yes, ascending each colossi is an enthralling experience (in no small part thanks to Kow Otani’s orchestral score, otherwise known as one of the greatest video game soundtracks ever created), but that every battle fluctuates in their instilling of awe and remorse render it a game unlike anything else, and we return to it again and again to keep ourselves asking, to bathe within its obscured melancholy. So much of this has to do with the camera’s sense of scale, which presents the scope of The Forbidden Lands and the colossi relative to Wander’s own diminutive size; we feel the valley depths threatening to swallow us whole as we cross stone bridges, the rumble of the colossis’ massive girth as we grip to their fur, and witness the futile struggle to shake us off as they violently whip their heads about, the camera zooming in each time we stab again and again.
Needless to say, Shadow of the Colossus PS4’s customized Photo Mode allowing us to frame Wander’s epic tragedy any way we wish paves the way for an even deeper experience; in fact, all three of the shots you’ve seen hitherto were arranged shots using just the default filter, with the one above being one of my favorites. Just like the original version, you can visit the decayed remains of colossi you’ve slain, now rendered into clumps of dirt and moss. A faraway shot instantly paints it as regret: Wander’s distant position and downward gaze says it all, and we can not only witness the bitter reality settling in, but practically hear the questions generating in his head (“Is what I’m doing the right thing?” “Did this creature really deserve this?”).
Here’s another shot that ties into a long-held fantasy of mine: what if, perhaps, there was a way we could befriend the colossi? Here, we can perceive Wander not attempting to slay the colossi, but guiding the way forward using the Ancient Sword’s navigational light. That’s not what’s going on in the game, obviously — in battle, the light reveals the colossi’s weak points — but it’s an alternative concept I’ve always felt would make an appropriate spiritual successor. Much like the organic, poignant judgments one makes in Undertale, such a game would require a similar design to the match the beauty and heartbreak of its inspiration, and staring at this shot makes me wonder of what could be.
However, it’s the 15 filters that are the star: be it Woodland, Frigid, or Radiant, each and every one depicts Shadow of the Colossus in ways never thought possible. Above is a chilling shot from my second playthrough, utilizing an edited Night Filter framing it as a real-life nightmare. The colossus’s fur is obscured, rendering it as a pitch-black symbolic horror more terrifying than the original could ever hope to be.
The best thing about it? That’s one of the filters available for real-time play, meaning Shadow of the Colossus PS4 allows me to tell the story my way. As the game warns, it’s not perfect — sometimes things get a little too dark and I’m just left fumbling around — but thanks to this option, my headcanon comes to life, no longer confined to my imagination. Even now, my mind is brimming with potential for future playthroughs: if I were to play it in the Reminiscence filter, for instance, it’d hail from the dusty archives of an ambitious, avant-garde filmmaker lost to time. In the Frigid filter, I’d be a wandering nomad seeking fur for his freezing family. In Faded, I’d be playing something closest resembling the PS2 original, fog and all.
Not that I’m particularly interested in that last one, mind; that I’m able to do this at all achieves what, to my mind, a remake is all about: doing something different. Yes, echoing the original is important, but a remake is supposed to present new perspectives, new ideas from concept not possible before. Thanks to Photo Mode, Shadow of the Colossus PS4 does this in spades, taking one of gaming’s most beloved titles and making it even more profound than ever before. And hey, even if I didn’t change your mind, the original’s not going anywhere.
(By the way, a word of warning: make sure you turn off the screenshot icon lest you want it intruding in your pictures; in my case, it ended up ruining half of my 800+ photos. Whoops! At least it made choosing photos for this article much easier.)